RICHMOND, Va. -- Just as the ball was released, Washington Redskins secondary coach Perry Fewell already celebrated. His pupil, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, had executed the play perfectly, turning the proper way, and putting himself into position to make a bigger play.
It’s what Fewell has wanted to see during the past year. It’s what Breeland finally showed. So when Breeland then completed the play by intercepting this Kirk Cousins fade into the end zone, Fewell was long into his celebration. Breeland had opened up to the inside, allowing him to keep his eyes on Cousins -- and therefore see the ball. That wasn’t happening in the past.
"He made improvement from a year ago," Fewell said. "He would play with his back to the quarterback. It’s been a long, arduous process, but now he’s playing with vision on the ball. Because he’s playing with vision on the ball, I can say, 'Yeah, Breeland!' because I know he sees the ball coming out."
Breeland hasn’t been perfect in camp -- receivers, notably Pierre Garcon, have caught passes against him on occasion. But Breeland has still looked as good as any defender early in training camp. Every practice, Fewell, in particular, is shouting superlatives at Breeland for one play or another.
"I don’t want him to wake up," Fewell said, laughing.
Breeland doesn’t hope to -- or plan to -- anytime soon. After two good years to start his career, Breeland said he’s on the verge of doing a lot more, which led to a bold statement.
"My confidence is riding high," he said. "I feel I can do something special this year. I can put myself in the category of being the No. 1 corner in the league or in the top five."
Both he and Fewell said Josh Norman's addition provided motivation for him. The Redskins signed Norman to a contract worth $15 million per season, making him the highest paid at his position; at the time Breeland didn't understand the move and felt disrespected. But he eventually changed his opinion. Breeland’s deal isn’t up until after the 2017 season, but if he continues to improve during the season, he'll eventually land his own big contract.
For now, Norman’s addition has helped Breeland’s game.
"I want to be that caliber of a player so I can be at that stature," Breeland said.
"Bree is a competitor and Josh is a competitor," Fewell said. "He needed someone like Josh to make him compete and make him take it to another level. He’s taken it to another level. I’m ecstatic."
One subtle way Norman has helped: Breeland is a little lower in his stance in press coverage, for example. Earlier in his career, Breeland had a tendency to get grabby with receivers down the field. He’d tug at their jerseys around the shoulder area, which could get him in trouble with officials. Often times it was a bigger issue in practice than games, but it was still a habit that needed correcting.
Part of this evolution resulted from a simple fact: Breeland was recruited to college as a safety and then switched to cornerback. He left Clemson after his junior year. So he had not been playing the position a long time and still had more to learn.
Now, in those same situations, he is playing lower with his hands. Early in camp it was evident: On one route against Garcon, as the two ran downfield, Breeland’s hands were much lower and any tugging was done in the hip area, reducing the chances an official might see a hold. Breeland also picked up how Norman plays certain techniques in coverage, and where he places his hands.
"I worked on my hand placement because of him," Breeland said. "I’m lower in my stance so my strike target is lower [off the snap]. That helps. And my eyes. I’m just being more balanced, and that helps a lot. I watched to see how Josh does his quick jam and learned nuances from him."
What Norman learned is that Breeland, his fellow South Carolinian, has improved because he’s trying to compete with him.
"Once he develops that confidence and swagger about him to where no one can beat him, he’ll be just fine," Norman said. "I’m looking forward to him having a super year."